Turkey on the Edge

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Turkey on the Edge

 Original by Andrey Ivanov published at freepublish.ru; translated from Russian by J.Hawk

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a meeting with Turkey’s Prime Minister Akhmet Davutoglu in Istanbul that she will do everything to ensure Turkey’s swift entry into the EU. “We want to make the process of Turkey’s accession more dynamic,” Merkel said. This statement was radically different from her earlier rhetoric which totally ruled out Turkey becoming part of the “European family.”

Joining the EU used to be the pinnacle of aspirations of Ankara governments over many decades. Turkey signed the Association Agreement in 1063 and has tried to meet the high European standards, be it in economy or science. But European politicians consistently said that nobody wants to see Turkey in the EU. Angela Merkel was not an exception who, even before coming to power in 2005, proposed the “privileged partnership instead of full membership” formula for Turkey.

She made her most recent statement of this sort not a very long time ago. “I have always been against Turkey’s membership in the EU, president Tayyip Erdogan knows this, and I am still against,” Merkel said in an October 8 interview on the ARD TV channel.

But the tone changed dramatically in only a short time. The idea of Turkey joining the EU was supported by the conference of EU foreign ministers. Even though as late as June the majority were cool to the idea.

Now even Merkel is “for.” There may be two reasons for this. The first is that Europe wants the refugees to remain in Turkey and not reach the Old World. The second are the effective operations by Russian aircraft in Syria, which have forced the West to look for new allies.

One should note that the Turkish government’s attitude toward joining the EU has likewise greatly changed over the last years. Several years ago Erdogan himself rejected the idea of joining the EU and launched reforms which in no way could be called “pro-European.” There were amendments to the Constitution, the government began to depart from the secular state concept. And it may well be that Merkel’s proposal to “facilitate Eurointegration” is simply too late.

The foggy prospects for joining the EU may be less attractive for Ankara than the prospect of ridding itself of the responsibility for hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East. Turkey doesn’t want to be bound by European rules on the energy sector because it wants to collaborate closely with Russia on the Turkish Stream pipeline.

On the other hand, Ankara’s foreign policy in recent years was characterized by a remarkable lack of consistency. For example, Syria was considered one of Turkey’s man partners, and then after the Arab Spring Ankara unexpectedly began to demand al-Assad be overthrown and reoriented themselves on Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Or the relations with Russia. One day Erdogan speaks of a strategic partnership, is ready to quarrel with the EU over Turkish Stream, then next day he says he’s ready to cut all ties with Russia. It’s entirely possible that Merkel tried to exploit this peculiar aspect of Turkey’s foreign policy.

The director of the Middle East–Caucasus Research Center Stanislav Tarasov believes that all of Ankara’s game may in the end backfire:

–Merkel said many times Turkey will never join the EU. But now she came to Ankara and said she will facilitate it. In Turkey itself there’s some pessimism on that score, which is evident from Turkish press.

Nothing of importance will change if EU introduces a visa-free regime for Turkish citizens. Turkish TV is showing programs about how their countrymen live in Germany. There are 3.5 million Turks in Germany who came at various times starting with the 1960. A third of them has no work, and they are against further inflow of Turks into Germany.

But the West’s approach toward Turkey has changed. Victoria Nuland is heading there. John Kerry spoke in favor of a meeting between Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. The reason is that Turkey today is in very great danger.

Turkey could potentially repeat the Syria scenario. Even recently, it played the same role in the Syria conflict as Pakistan in the Afghan war. In other words, it was a conduit for radical extremists, weapons, etc. But now the frontlines have shifted. The war against the Islamic State is becoming an internal war. There’s also the Kurdish factor. PKK is conducting operations on Turkey’s territory. Turkish authorities are bombing Syria’s Kurds and pacifying Turkey’s Kurds at the same time.

Turkey is in a difficult situation and nobody can predict what will happen next. The West is worried that it could lose Turkey which would greatly change the region’s geopolitics. Hence the talk of visa-free travel, swift joining of EU, etc. It’s not even a lifesaver but a symbolic token. You know what? One day we’ll be happy to see you among us.

There’s also the matter of Turkey’s internal politics. Erdogan is pining for authoritarianism, for islamism. His regime is repressing the opposition and imprisoning journalists. When they say that Turkey will soon join the EU, they are really saying that Turkey’s authorities ought to act more carefully. The West is thus attempting to pre-empt Turkey’s return to a dicatorship.

From the strategic point of view, Europe is also trying to stop the flow of migrants.

Q: Is Merkel’s statement connected to the effective use of Russian combat aircraft in Syria?

A: This is a very complex game. Just recently Turks tried to unleash a scandal over alleged violations of their airspace by Russian aircraft. Ankara demanded NATO give a stern answer. NATO answered it’s prepared to protect Turkey but only from direct Russian invasion which is something Russia never intended to do. Furthermore, NATO withdrew its Patriot SAM batteries from Turkey. They didn’t have much relevance to Turkey’s security but they were symbolically important. Withdrawing them meant Ankara felt itself abandoned by everyone.

In this situation, it can’t be ruled out that Turkey will start drifting ward Russia and even collaborate with the Russia-Syria-Iran-Iraq coalition. As far as I know, our military already established contacts with the Turkish general staff. A Turkish TV channel recently ran a story on who violates Turkish airspace and how. It was telling that Turkish officers emphasized that Russia was not one of these countries.

Q: What role could Turkey play in the Syria conflict?

A: In my view, Turkey is one step away from a catastrophe. It’s a border country. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, in spite of their problems in Yemen, is trying to influence the situation in Yemen and it has formations in the country under its control which it requested Russia not to bomb.

But Turkey is an entirely different position because it has a border with Syria. There is the Iraqi Kurdistan and the de-factor Kurdish autonomy in Syria. They could unify with the Turkish Kurds. And the elections are coming.

The Ankara regime turned down the ceasefire with PKK and fighting resumed. There are new deaths every day. It’s entirely possible that eastern Turkey will declare an autonomy or demand status similar to that of Iraq’s Kurds. It’s not longer a fantastic prospect but a wholly real one.

How will Turkey overcome this situation? Especially considering that Erdogan’s party might not get a huge majority in the elections? It will likely get a majority but not enough to form the cabinet. A palace coup is entirely possible in a situation like that. The new government would likely adopt a different line on Syria.

With all that in mind, one could say the situation is extremely uncertain. In my opinion, Erdogan missed genuine opportunities to come out of this dead end. And now he is being thrown symbolic life preservers by the West. Although it’s also possible the West is betting on other political forces in Turkey.

Q: How can Russia built its relations with Turkey under these conditions?

A: In recent years, Turkey’s foreign policy has been very inconsistent. They’ve painted themselves into a corner. It’s no accident Russia’s ambassador was recently summoned and warned against supporting the Kurds. Israel and the US supported the Kurds earlier and Ankara kept quiet. But now Moscow said that it will try to facilitate resolving the Kurdish problem and the Turks got worried.

In principle, Russia could save Erdogan’s regime. First of all, one has to declare we are in favor of preserving Turkey’s territorial integrity. Secondly, have a more clear position on the Kurdish issue. But so far we’ve been quite careful for obvious reasons. We have clearly said that we are not going to allow Syria to be broken up. Soon we’ll have to make a similar statement concerning Turkey.

One has to keep in mind there is a big pro-Russian lobby in Turkey. Putin and Erdogan have done a lot to increase mutual trade. We offered the Turkish Stream, a nuclear power plant, other energy projects. But such projects are never implemented in countries suffering from major crises. Which means we are confirming our desire to act as an indirect guarantor of Turkey’s stability even though nobody is saying this publicly.

Without any question, Ankara should change its policies and stop being so inconsistent. Its earlier approaches are no longer working. Erdogan has had harsh words toward Russia, toward the EU, but everyone treated him with condescension. Washington, too, is preferring to distance itself from Turkey.

–I believe that EU statements on Turkey joining the EU are mainly tied to the refugee problem, says Sergey Fokin, a professor of International politics at the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Syria factor is present too. One must remember that Syrian textbooks describe southern regions of Turkey as temporarily occupied Syrian territory. Thus Ankara is interested in Syria’s disappearance.

Therefore pursuing policies in the region is difficult for us. Moreover, there’s also the energy factor. Qatar wants to build a pipeline through Syria to supply EU with gas. Naturally, that’s not to our advantage. We support Syria today, but we have to pursue diplomatic initiatives in order to preserve good relations with Turkey. It’s hard to do in view of Ankara’s inconsistency, but the whole world right now is unstable which means we’ll have to “walk the tightrope.”

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